Hillsborough finds 440 uncounted ballots

TAMPA — A Hillsborough elections employee found 440 uncounted ballots Thursday, a discovery that comes more than two months after an Election Day already marred by mishaps, technological glitches and spending irregularities.

Elections Supervisor Phyllis Busansky said Friday that she reacted in "horror, shock" when she learned about the newly discovered ballots, which were cast at a Temple Terrace church in November when Buddy Johnson was elections supervisor.

"I've been in office eight days," Busansky said. "Every day has been a surprise. … But this is serious. Votes need to be counted."

Because the ballots were discovered after the election results were certified, the uncounted ballots won't change any outcomes unless someone files a lawsuit. One possible litigant is Dave Penoyer, who lost a bid for the Temple Terrace City Council to Mary Jane Neale by 84 votes. He is the only candidate to have lost by a margin smaller than the number of ballots discovered Thursday in a warehouse.

Penoyer said he is considering a lawsuit. Even with the new ballots, Penoyer said he didn't expect to pass Neale, but he said it's important that every vote count.

"The bigger issue is that 440 of my neighbors stood in line to vote, and they didn't count," he said. "Absolutely amazing, isn't it? What a disgrace. It cements the fact that Buddy Johnson needed to go."

If Penoyer does follow through with a lawsuit, it's not clear who would pay the legal costs, said Mary Helen Farris, a county attorney. It would be up to a judge to decide who would be responsible — taxpayers or even Johnson himself, she said.

Johnson couldn't be reached Friday. Busansky wasn't sure how the ballots got lost. She said scanner problems may have contributed.

This is the second instance of election workers finding mislaid ballots after the polls closed. On Nov. 12, eight days after the general election, workers discovered a container of 846 absentee ballots in the corner of an elections office vault. The absentee ballots had been turned in at the downtown elections office, then taken to the Brandon elections service center where they were mislaid and apparently untouched for days after the election.

This time, the problem arose at Temple Terrace Presbyterian Church, which hosted two precincts on Election Day, according to Busansky's chief of staff, retired Hillsborough County sheriff's Maj. Craig Latimer.

It had two optical scan machines that processed ballots. One of the scanners shut down at 5:57 p.m. The second scanner started rejecting ballots, a snag first reported at 6:17 p.m.

Latimer said a third scanner was brought in as relief. He said a poll worker might have reattached the new scanner to a new ballot box, setting aside the old box stuffed with ballots. In taking the boxes to the elections warehouse on Falkenburg Road, one of the boxes was somehow misplaced. It was found Thursday — 72 days later. That's when an elections office employee discovered the box and the ballots inside.

Busansky said the error also could have been caused by poll workers not following proper procedure and checking to see whether all 660 boxes were accounted for when counting began.

This is the second time this week the boxes have made news. On Wednesday, the St. Petersburg Times reported that Johnson spent more money on each box — $1,850 — than other counties. He ordered an extra 220 in August to ensure a swift vote count, but that didn't happen as Hillsborough lagged behind all other counties in tallying votes.

Those extra boxes cost $407,000, an expense that has drawn criticism as Busansky, county and state officials try to figure out how Johnson left behind a $2.3-million deficit that was not anticipated. An audit of his office by the accounting firm Ernst & Young is expected to be released soon.

So far, Latimer said, no law enforcement agency is investigating. But County Commissioner Rose Ferlita said if audits don't answer questions she has, anything is possible.

"This is just another thing that we've stumbled upon," Ferlita said. "If the audits and investigations of (Johnson's) tenure show other things, and they rise to the level of criminal wrongdoing, then that needs to be addressed. I wouldn't be shy in saying justice needs to be served."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or mvansickler@sptimes.com

fast fact

A litany of problems

• A month after being ousted by challenger Phyllis Busansky, former Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson stunned county commissioners with a request for $2.3-million to pay for "unanticipated" election expenses. But when commissioners asked for backup material, Johnson's office quickly withdrew the request without explanation.

• In January, the Times confirmed that Johnson's office had not paid $2.1-million owed for new Premier Elections Solutions optical scan voting equipment — even though the County Commission had allocated funds for the entire price. A Premier official said the company billed for the payment and Johnson's office said it had no money.

• That helped trigger an audit to determine whether Johnson misappropriated millions of tax dollars while campaigning for his re-election.

• A few days later, Kurt Browning, Florida's top election official, said the state will investigate how Johnson's office spent more than $2-million in federal grant money if ongoing audits don't come up with the answer.

• On Friday, Busansky announced the discovery of 440 uncounted ballots from the November elections.

Hillsborough finds 440 uncounted ballots 01/16/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 16, 2009 11:26pm]

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